Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Writer's Wednesday - The Dickens Approach

Pink Heart Society editor, Ali Williams, is musing about the importance of openings, and the impact that wordiness has on them...

I have an English Literature degree which means that I had to study Dickens.

I say had to, because I have to blunt about something here - I'm not the biggest Dickens fan.  Charles D is a little too wordy for me.

Or so I thought.

See, it turns out that Dickens used to get paid by the word, which is why the first handful of chapters in each book are unbelievably wordy.  Trudging through them is like dragging yourself through a mire of sludge.  And then suddenly, without warning, there's a shift.

One of my lecturers used to argue that that's always the moment when Dickens forgot he was writing for money, and just got lost in the story.  

She recommend that we start Oliver Twist halfway through, finish it, and then go back and read the entire thing from the beginning.

But this is a blog about writing romance, so why I am talking Dickens?

Because Dickens illustrates the kind of writing problem that I'm up against.  I'm not overly wordy in my openings, but only because I'm paranoid that I'll Dickens it up.

I over edit my openings.

Openings are what capture readers; they're what get us hooked and keep us going.  And those kind of openings are difficult to get just right.

And then there's the Dickens approach.

The thing is, you can always go back and edit your openings afterwards.  They don't need to perfect first time round - it's just a draft after all.

So I'm currently proposing taking the Dickens route, which is to write and write until I forget when the writing ends and my characters begin.  

I've set out by fully immersing myself in my setting.  Enter Tunford, a sleepy West Sussex village in the heart of the British countryside.  

The name's made up of the Old English words "tรบn" (meaning a group of houses of village) and "ford" (meaning a river crossing), so that immediately helped me imagine the place.  I've even drawn a map of the village (cos I'm just that cool). 

But more key than developing the setting in this kind of detail, is the fact that I've banned myself from editing anything that's been written over a page ago.  That way I'll hopefully find it easier to get caught up in the writing, as opposed to having fragmented writing sessions.

And to kickstart myself into continuing, here's my first paragraph:
Rounding that familiar bend in the road, Katharina Oriani felt sick.  It was, she knew, an illogical reaction.  The sleepy Sussex village of her childhood had been nothing if not wholesome, and yet the thought of returning to a barrage of family criticism was crushing.  Breath stolen away, she felt as claustrophobic has she had done ten years ago.
Dickens, eat your heart out.

What prep do you do before starting work on your opening?  And do you edit as you go along, or rush straight through to that Dickensian moment of immersion?

Ali Williams grew up in Croydon and spent her teenage years in a convent girls' school. She then fled to university where she discovered champagne cocktails, a capella singing and erotica. 

These days she blogs about perceptions of romance, #StrongRomanceHeroines and women in society and spends an extraordinary amount of time coercing male friends to pose with her favourite Mills & Boon books to the bemusement of the Twittersphere.

Passionately vocal about the wonders of romance, Ali defies you to slam romance novels within her hearing!


  1. I like this approach to Dickens! He's not my favourite either, but maybe I'll give him another chance sometime.

    I agree that it's a god idea not to edit your opening until much later. Even though you've thought about it before, it's part of the process of establishing the characters and the setting in your own mind, and you can decide later which bits the reader needs, etc..

    1. I found that when I did as my lecturer suggested, and started halfway through, I got absolutely gripped and ended up devouring the whole thing - even when returning to the beginning!

      And yeah, it's a problem I've had in the past, as I can't seem to help myself. But I think being really strict and refusing to listen to the little voice in my head that keeps on shrieking "That's not good enough! You can't possibly move on until that's fixed!" will help. :P